While staying in Vancouver, we went down to Steveston, an old fishing village just south of Richmond, to go out on a whale watching trip. The area was so rich with history and it was impossible not to think of Moby Dick there, and the intriguing creatures which were (hopefully) waiting for us just outside of the bay.
We began our searching before we had even left the harbour, glancing across the ripples and tunnels of the waves. We watched as other boats of all shapes and sizes came in from the choppy conditions up ahead – all to the tune of the roaring bellows of the Sea Lions, lolling around on the sea breaks to our right. I kept my eyes peeled (despite the short-sightedness), and T scoured the seascape with binoculars.
The rib boat rocketed across the open water and in no time at all, our tour guide was flapping in excitement, as she spotted two humpbacks not far from us. We watched in awe and were flummoxed by the sheer size of the things, as they surfaced before dipping below again on their long dives. The boat was silent, waiting for them to resurface, out there in the cold and windy Strait of Georgia. After waiting patiently for a while with no luck, our Captain decided to journey on.
Reports came in of something very exciting indeed, down in the Gulf Islands. The boat jumped and crashed and soaked all of us, as we jetted forward, the water getting rougher and the grey clouds creeping in. We were down by the US border when we finally came across the orca pod, and we watched and scrambled for a better look as we swayed with the sea and learned from our guide as they led us around the shores of the forested islands.
Eager to learn everything I could about these black and white ‘whales’, I listened attentively to our guide. She taught us that orcas are a beautiful and mysterious species, and they are the subject of a few widespread misconceptions. Orcas are in fact members of the dolphin family, so not a whale at all. It’s thought that their nickname, ‘killer whale’, derives from descriptions by sailors in the eighteenth century as ‘killers of whales’, which has shortened over time.
Equally baffling is the fact that there are two distinct types of orcas. They may look identical to the untrained eye, but they couldn’t be more different. The first is the resident orca, who stays in one habitat and only eats fish – almost exclusively salmon. Unlike their cousins, resident orcas are harmless to anything bigger than this, and the sad reality is that the species is dying out. Salmon supplies have dwindled hugely in recent years and more resident orcas are dying than being born due to their poor food supply. The second, and far more prolific species is the transient orca, who follow migrant patterns and eat marine mammals, such as seals, birds and even other whales (the true origin of the ‘killer’ name).
The two types don’t mix, but they follow a similar setup in their ‘pods’. Orcas are organised in a matrilineal society – meaning that a female, usually mature, is the head of the pod. Yes, you heard that right. The ‘Grandma’ of the pod says what goes and has the position of ultimate power. I can’t help but be fascinated by the contrast with our own society: where elderly women tend to live a lonely and marginalised existence. I guess the closest grandmother ‘authority figure’ that comes to mind is the Italian ‘Nonna’, who shares her wisdom with, and demands respect from, the many generations of her familia.
In the orca world, females have a significantly longer life expectancy than males (50 years compared to the average 29) therefore living for many decades after going through the menopause – which is exceptionally rare in the animal kingdom. These post-menopausal orcas are respected for their experience and looked to by their offspring for guidance in hunting and survival. Resident orca matriarchs will lead up to 40 individuals in her pod, as her children and their offspring remain with her. Transient orcas have far smaller pods, with only the matriarch’s sons remaining and the most recent daughters until they move on to form their own.
Pod societies are extremely stable, as orcas are highly sociable animals. While young males may have more energy and strength, they need the ecological wisdom of their mother/grandmother in order to deal with trials such as food shortages, difficult hunts and unexpected weather. The life of an orca is not a simple one. Pods have unique calls for the family group and are so tight knit that if an individual orca is missing after several sightings of a matriline, biologists use this sign to assume that the animal has passed away.
So, while the females depart in order to run their very own pod, male orcas will only break off for very short periods, to mate with females from another pod or to hunt smaller mammals. They are bound to their mothers for life, and this bond is so strong that their mothers even have control over the choice of mate. In 2018, the National Geographic reported the first recorded case of infanticide, as a mother aided her son in killing the calf of an unrelated female, in order to make her his mate. It seems that orca mothers really will do anything for their children.
The contrast is vivid when compared with our own society. Can you imagine a world where sons stayed with their mothers for life? Where grandmothers hold power for their wisdom, and mothers really do know best?
As we learn more and more about strong women throughout ‘herstory’ and look to female role models for inspiration in leading the way towards equality, the natural world can clearly provide us with similar examples. The matriarchal society that orcas live within is highly effective, and the transient orca is feared throughout the seas for its power and strength. Males are bound to their mothers in the historical way that human daughters have been the responsibility of their fathers. It’s our world upside down, but it functions hugely successfully. So, give the orca as a natural retort to any anti-feminist BS you come up against - male orcas are clearly the biggest ‘Mumma’s boys’ produced by Mother Nature.